Auditing the Grand Master’s Course @JMmystery

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com

Lawrence Block, Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, has accepted a teaching position at Newberrry College in South Carolina.  One of his courses is titled “The Pleasures of Crime Fiction” and he has published his assigned reading list of fourteen books by fourteen different authors.  In a letter posted to the International Association of Crime Writers, Block says he might easily have picked different titles by the same writers, or chosen fourteen altogether different writers.  He precluded the possibility of hearing alternative suggestions.  “I don’t want to seem uncaring, but I flat don’t care.”

It would be a wonderfully rewarding experience to attend Block’s course.  Not only is he a terrific writer, he is also a historian of the finest exemplars of the genre.  He has hobnobbed with some of the authors whose books are on the list.  His reminiscences would be rich, I’m sure.  But I live diametrically across the country from Newberry.  I decided to read the works he selected (in no particular order) and draw my own conclusions about how great or not-so-great a pleasure they provide.

I began with The Fabulous Clipjoint, the winner of the 1948 Edgar Award by Fredric Brown.  Brown hated to write and did anything else he could think of to avoid it.  When he did sit down at the typewriter, he preferred stories in the range of one to three pages, primarily science fiction.  Clipjoint was his first full-length mystery.  Part pulp, part coming-of-age story, the book introduces Ed Hunter, an eighteen-year-old apprentice linotype operator whose drunken father is bashed over the head with a beer bottle and murdered in an alley.  Ed teams up with his Uncle Ambrose, a street-wise carny worker, to track down the murderer.  Brown lets Ed sum up his attitude toward mystery novels:

“I started a [detective] story and it was about a rich man who was found dead in his hotel suite with a noose of yellow silk rope around his neck, but he’d been poisoned.  There were lots of suspects, all with motives…In the third chapter they’d just about pinned it on the racketeer and then he’s murdered.  There’s a yellow silk cord around his neck and he’s been strangled, but not with the silk cord.

I put down the book.  Nuts, I thought, murder isn’t like that.”

That passage made me laugh out loud, but Ed didn’t often speak so humorously and appealingly.  I will probably skip the following six books in the series.

My next pick on Block’s list was The Right Murder by Craig Rice, a female author I’d never heard of.  The forward to the novel describes her thus:  “The Dorothy Parker of detective fiction, she wrote the binge but lived the hangover.”  In addition to this intriguing biographical tidbit, I found the black-haired, fiery-lipped vamp depicted on the book’s cover irresistible – especially the outline of a corpse where her right eye should be.

The protagonist is a short, fat, Irish lawyer named Malone.  “What do they do to murderers in this country?” asks a visitor from abroad. “Not a damned thing when they have Malone for a lawyer,” comes the answer.  Unfortunately, the reader never gets to see Malone in action in the courtroom.  He is too busy drinking gin and collecting obscure clues from the outstretched hands of dying men.

The attorney is assisted in his investigation (or abetted) by a madcap heiress named Helene Justus and her devil-may-care husband, Jake.  The amount of alcohol consumed per page by these three makes Nick and Nora Charles look like zealots from the Temperance League.  Block’s recovering alcoholic Detective Matt Scudder would suffer a relapse just breathing the fumes off this book.  There’s a zany, over-the-top energy to Rice’s writing, but although the murders are eventually solved and explained, there’s a yellow-silk-cord craziness looping through the plot.  If your taste runs to the screwball, you’ll love it.

The Case of the Sulky Girl by Erle Stanley Gardner had a sobering effect.  Written in 1933, the year Prohibition ended, this was the second novel featuring the attorney Perry Mason and Perry didn’t fog his brilliant brain with booze.  After 119 novels, 30 movies, and 271 TV episodes, only an alien from outer space would ask what happens to accused murderers represented by Perry Mason.  They’re always proved innocent.  During his investigation of the Sulky Girl case, Mason is forced to undertake a risky re-enactment of the murder in order to achieve that result.  “There are times,” he says, “when caution is a vice.”

While short on clever dialogue and character development, Gardner’s fast-paced, suspenseful, no-nonsense story delivered plenty of action and accurate legal details.  At the time of his death in 1970, he was the best-selling American author of the century – reason enough to include him in a class on the pleasures of crime fiction.

Stay tuned.  I’m moving down the list, eleven books to go.

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